NOTE: SPOILERS FOLLOW…
Among the many existential phrases tossed off in English with European accents in Spectre, the 24th James Bond movie, one haunts me most.
Dr. Swann, the beautiful Sorbone-educated purveyor of miracle cures atop the Austrian alps— after being rescued by James Bond, but before having post-violence train sex— at this point in their chaste hotel room, where she prepares to sleep in her white nightgown while he sits guard over her in a reclining wood and leather chair, says to him: “There are two James’s.”
Thus arrives the halfway point of no return in the latest James Bond entry, when the beautifully shot, surreal fever-dream about the ultimate man’s man’s conquests of landscapes, bodies, and death itself becomes a scattered mash-up of older movie plots.
The first James floats effortlessly through a swarming Day of the Dead crowd after dancing down a falling building; he speeds through Rome in his grey Austin Martin, pursued by a bad guy who looks like Popeye’s Bluto, all the while chatting on his cell phone with Moneypenny, who stands in her kitchen with last night’s hookup snoring from her bedroom; he flirts with every man and woman who crosses his path (men with names like M, Q, and C; women like tragic Italian divas, a briefly introduced and abandoned Latina actress who needs her own movie, and Dr. Swann herself— daughter of a fallen SPECTRE accomplice). I like this first James very much. He reminds me of me in every dream I’ve had where I’m that amazing.
Then there’s the other James. He’s the one gratuitously flying a stolen airplane down onto the jeeps in which Dr. Swann has been taken hostage (for the first of many times), somehow managing to kill only bad guys and not her in the process. He’s the one trapped in the sinister chair of tiny brain drills by the man who will become the basis for Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil in a post-post-modernist origin of an origin’s origin story. Later, Second James runs through a building trying to save Dr. Swann (kidnapped again) before the building blows up in 3 minutes. On the surface, the two James’s sound very similar. But this other Bond, who really emerges about the time Bond flies that airplane’s wings off, then skis it down a mountain into all those jeeps—which is actually before he is told by Dr. Swann that he is a double of himself— has already been hitched to a machine called contrivance that consciously links absolutely everything that’s ever happened to him to what’s happening here, fabricates a lasting love interest out of the thin Austrian air, and generally bogs down visual poetry with the prosaic justification for it.
It’s also a tale of two Spectres: the ghostly spectre of our primal connection to a man who has a license to kill and the crass and cynical SPECTRE, which banks on our nostalgia for short sadists who pet white cats while torturing adopted brothers. It’s been done and now we’re just wallowing in the aftermath. Watch James walk through the building most likely to be blown up in 3 minutes, passing several Scotch-taped pictures of actors from the past three Bond films who have met their respective makers by fire, by water, by sunshine, by high ordeal, and all the other lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire?” (which I would suggest replace the forgettable Sam Smith theme song that swims over the Octopussied title sequence).
Don’t get me wrong; I like the emotionally vulnerable, soulful yet animalistic Bond with the troubled orphan past. I got into James Bond again after a long hiatus of being disinterested between The Living Daylights (which I liked) and Casino Royale (which I loved).
As a nearly lifelong James Bond-head who first experienced Bond when my father read me a heavily expurgated version of Ian Fleming’s Live and Let Die, who shortly thereafter wore out the 20 Years of James Bond Themes record album, who dressed up like James Bond in a thrift store sports coat stuffed with spy gear, who returned to read all the books on my own the summer before Middle School, who kept a finger on the pulse of Bond through his various incarnations up until the aforementioned Bond burnout, I went into Spectre with not so much high or low expectations, but in religious observance. I had found my Bond faith again with Casino Royale, which captured the essence of the book Bond I remembered.
Casino Royale was Fleming’s first Bond book, the one that never had a real movie adaptation but finally got a good one, thereby realizing a childhood fantasy of mine. I subsequently went along with the loud confusion of Quantum of Solace and, like most people, found Skyfall to be very satisfying, even in scenes that didn’t satisfy everyone (I liked the siege-scene ending because it felt very true to what I remembered of the books). And so Spectre makes me confront my past, as James Bond is forced to do by his new and old arch-nemesis, the man with the cat. I’m not who I was when I was singing along with “Diamonds Are Forever” in my living room in 1986. I’m not even who I was when I saw Casino Royale in 2006. Maybe this is the halfway point of no return for me, too.
There are two James’s in Spectre’s middling middle part. One is living in a painted dream, as much Edward Hopper as Salvador Dali, forever sashaying over rooftops and bedding foreign women with expensive hairdos; the other has been pieced together by too many writers, producers, and executives, the boxed set of Daniel Craig’s Bond Tetralogy assembled, neatly tied up with a blonde, a Blofeld, and an Austin Martin. I would love to end this review with a rousing rendition of “Nobody Does it Better.” But maybe “You Only Live Twice” is more like it.
Rating (one to five whistles, five being the best): Three Whistles
Jim Knable is a playwright, singer-songwriter, and prose writer who has had his plays produced at MCC Theater, Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Soho Rep, and various other regional and university companies. His play Spain was included in Smith and Kraus’ Best Plays of 2008 anthology, published by Broadway Play Publishing, and a collection of three of his plays was just published by Samuel French as The Imaginary Plays: SPAIN/SALTIMBANQUES/GREEN MAN. He has written essays, reviews, short stories, and published part of his novel Sons of Dionysus in Frontier Psychiatrist, Newyork.com, and The Brooklyn Rail. His band The Randy Bandits released three albums that are available on iTunes. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and sons. His next projects include a Shaw adaptation to be staged at a kombucha factory in Brooklyn and a podcast of his latest play, The Curse of Atreus, to be produced by 12 Peers Theatre in Pittsburgh.
Lead-In Image Courtesy of MGM
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